Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

James W. Thompson. 2011. Moral Formation according to Paul. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Being created in the image of Holy God poses a special problem for Christians because of original sin. Sin not only mucks up the workings our lives like molasses poured into a car’s gas tank, it stinks up the place polluting our emotions and minds much like molasses as it burns. We love the wrong things like an addict lusting after drugs and think like criminals avoiding the sunlight that might expose their crimes. In the midst of our fallen state, Christ redeems us and the church aids in our formation as Christians. But how?


In his book, Moral Formation according to Paul, James Thompson begins with this goal:

“Although I hope that this book has contemporary relevance, my primary task is not to ask the hermeneutical questions about the many moral questions that now confront us, but to grasp the specific shape and inner logic of Paul’s moral instructions.”(ix)

Thompson observes that Paul never uses the word, ethics, and only once uses the common Greek term, virtue. (2-3, 59, 107) Instead, Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin (Rom 3:10; 155, 208) and focusing on sexual immorality in his vice lists. (17) Unlike the Greeks, he did not advocate that sin could be overcome through human effort. (148) Like other Diaspora Jews (those outside of Israel), Paul turned to the Holiness Code (Lev 17-26) for guidance (133).

Paul Focuses on Formation

Paul’s teaching stands out from most ancient writers. Thomson writes:

“Paul’s major challenge as a missionary and planter of churches was to ensure the moral transformation of his communities. His task was not only to make converts, but to re-socialize them and provide a common ethos and shared practices.”(207)

Rather than emphasize the static view of Rudolf Bultmann (before and after faith), Thompson sees Paul teaches that we stand between conversion and the return of Christ (the end), an emphasis on the journey of faith (1, 61). Thompson writes: “Paul does not speak of ethics as such, but of how to walk, the primary term for ethical conduct.” (61) This suggests that telos, not identity or duty, drives Pauline ethics.

Summary of Paul’s Teaching

Thompson views 1 Thessalonians as a window into the content of Paul’s teaching, which he refers to as catechesis (preparation for baptism). He makes three points:

  1. “This catechesis involved first the memory of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Thes 4:14) …
  2. Second, Paul consistently places the story of Jesus and the readers’ own experience within the narrative of Israel, providing a symbolic world and an identity (e.g. 1 Thes 4:5) …
  3. Third, Paul appeals not only to the story of Jesus to shape the moral conduct of his communities, but also to the Torah. (207-208)

Paul stands alone among ancient writers in arguing for the concept of original sin. (Rom 3:10; 208)

Holiness as a Pauline Distinctive

While the Jewish community set itself apart from gentile communities through its dietary laws and Sabbath practices, Pauline communities distinguished themselves through holiness. Thompson writes:

“Having provided the community with an identity as God’s elect and holy people, Paul extends the sphere of holiness from the cult to matters of sexuality, distinguishing the holy people from the gentiles.”(76)

Paul’s use fo the term, saints, and referring to the church as the called out ones (ekkesia) furthermore distinguishes Christians a the holy ones and identifies them with ancient Israel (54-55). 

Background and Organization

James W. Thompson received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University, teaches at at the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, and is the author of numerous books. He writes in eight chapters:

  1. “Ethics in Hellenistic Judaism: Maintaining Jewish Identity in the Diaspora.
  2. Shaping an Identity: Moral Instruction and Community Formation.
  3. From Catechesis to Correspondence: Ethos and Ethics in 1 Thessalonians.
  4. Pauline Catechesis and the Lists of Vices and Virtues.
  5. Paul, the Law, and Moral Instruction.
  6. Paul, the Passions, and the Law.
  7. Putting Love into Practice.
  8. Ethics and the Disputed Letters of Paul. (vii)

These chapters are proceeded by a preface, abbreviations, and an introduction. They are followed by a conclusion, works cited, and several indices.


James Thompson’s Moral Formation according to Paul is a scholarly assessment of Paul’s ethics. It is well-written and documented resource for pastors, seminary students, and scholars of Paul’s work.

Thompson: Paul’s Ethics Forms Community

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